Sediment supply and channel morphology in mountain river systems: 2. Single thread to braided transitions

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Abstract

Differences in sediment supply between single-thread and braided channel types provide a long-recognized, though difficult to quantify, pattern discrimination. Building on the results from our preceding paper, we present a multiscale assessment of the sediment supply, geomorphology, and sediment transport characteristics of braided, gravel-bedded reaches in the northern Rocky Mountains, USA. First, we present a quantitative, theoretically based discriminant function that stratifies single-thread and braided reaches on the basis of variations in bankfull sediment concentration and dimensionless discharge following the work of Millar (2005) and Eaton et al. (2010). This function correctly classifies 50 of the 53 channel types where bed load concentrations are known. Second, while channel pattern transitions are often linked to changes in slope, field studies along Sunlight Creek, Wyoming, show that downstream transitions between single-thread and braided reaches are instead caused by valley constrictions and changes in the grain size of sediment from tributaries. Finally, we demonstrate that the two-dimensional variability in flow properties in braided reaches produces locally high values of shear stress and bed load transport. Yet bed load measurements and sediment transport calculations also show that sediment transport rates between adjoining braided and single-thread reaches may be approximately equal where channels are near the pattern threshold and downstream variations in bank fortitude and channel constriction force pattern transitions. Taken together, these results indicate that high bed load concentrations are fundamental to the braided channel planform and that braided channels likely reflect a quasi-equilibrium state within watersheds with persistent high sediment supply.

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